As a member of the crowd that populates the streets, the flâneur participates physically in the text that he observes while performing a transient and aloof autonomy with a "cool but curious eye" that studies the constantly changing spectacle that parades before him (Rignall 112). As an observer, the flâneur exists as both "active and intellectual" (Burton 1). As a literary device, one may understand him as a narrator who is fluent in the hieroglyphic vocabulary of visual culture. When he assumes the form of narrator, he plays both protagonist and audience--like a commentator who stands outside of the action, of whom only the reader is aware, "float[ing] freely in the present tense" (Mellencamp 60).
The flâneur has no specific relationship with any individual, yet he establishes a temporary, yet deeply empathetic and intimate relationship with all that he sees--an intimacy bordering on the conjugal--writing a bit of himself into the margins of the text in which he is immersed, a text devised by selective disjunction.
Walter Benjamin posits in his description of the flâneur that "Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes" (Baudelaire 55). In this way the flâneur parasite, dragging the crowd for intellectual food--or material for his latest novel (Ponikwer 139-140). In so doing, he wanders through a wonderland of his own construction, imposing himself upon a shop window here, a vagrant here, and an advertisement here. He flows like thought through his physical surroundings, walking in a meditative trance, (Lopate 88), gazing into the passing scene as others have gazed into campfires, yet "remain[ing] alert and vigilant" all the while (Missac 61) .
The flâneur is the link between routine perambulation, in which a person is only half-awake, making his way from point A to point B, and the moments of chiasmic epiphany that one reads of in Wordsworth or Joyce. Like Poe’s narrators, he is acutely aware, a potent intellectual force of keen observation--a detective without a lead. If he were cast a character in the "drama of the world," he would be its consciousness.
There is little scholarship surrounding the subject of the flâneur that does not in some way refer to Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire or The Arcades Project. This character first appeared in Benjamin's work in 1929 in "Die Wiederkeht des Flâneur," a work reviewing Hessel's Spazieren in Berlin, the title of which "suggests that the flâneur is properly a creature of the past". In his later work on nineteenth-century Paris, however, Benjamin re-examines the figure in what he deems its true dwelling place: Paris.
The flâneur figures prominently in his 1935 sketch for The Arcades Project, "Paris--Capital of the Nineteenth Century" and in the two studies of Baudelaire written in 1938 (Rignall 113). Much of Benjamin's research into the flâneur was inspired by the work of George Simmel, who notes that the relationships between members of a large city are more deeply influenced by the activity of the eye than of the ear. His interest in the surrealist movement of the early twentieth century also played a crucial part in his development of the flâneur as a literary concept. Combining "the casual eye of the stroller with the purposeful gaze of the detective" (Rignall 113), Benjamin constructs a literary creature capable of seeing the city as "landscape, lying either desolately or seductively open before the fictional characters, and . . . as a room enclosing them either protectively or oppressively" (Rignall 113). In this context, the city for Benjamin is both an interior and an exterior, "knowable and known, and . . . mysteriously alien and fantastic" (Rignall 113-114). Benjamin collected notes and reflections from mid 1927-1929 in preparation for an article-length essay to be titled "Paris Arcades: A Dialectical Enchantment." In response to the surrounding surrealist influences of the time, Benjamin's "ambition was to read the arcades as phantasmagorical images, 'the hollow mold' from which the image of the 'modern' was cast" (McCole 229); this would place the flâneur in its twentieth-century incarnation, as a product of surrealism; however, Benjamin disagreed with much of the surrealists' theory of images, which, in his opinion, "remain[ed] ensnared in pernicious romantic prejudices that left them prey to the mythic forces they had discovered" (McCole 229). Regardless of Benjamin's perception into the intellectual shortcomings of his surrealist contemporaries, Benjamin's study of Aragon and the architectural theories of his time influenced his work with the flâneur a great deal, allowing him to examine the resident mythologies of the modern city while preserving "fresh antitoxins against the vitalist strains of romanticism" (McCole 231). His favorite flâneur was Charles Baudelaire, who in his poem "A une passante," perhaps best articulates the relationship between the flâneur and the inhabitants of his city. (See section on "A une passante" by clicking HERE.)
Charles Baudelaire begins with a chapter on the flâneur. Benjamin commences his argument with a discussion of the rise of the physiologie as a literary genre. He refers to these "modest-looking, paperbound, pocket-sized volumes" as examples of "panorama literature" devised to orient the individual in the market-place in light of all the social changes brought on by the French Revolution (Baudelaire 35), while remaining "innocuous" enough and safely within the demands of the September Laws, which tightened censorship in 1836 (Baudelaire 36). These little books examined "types" that one might encounter while walking around Paris; from "the itinerant street vendor of the boulevards to the dandy in the foyer of the opera-house, there was not a figure of Paris life that was not sketched by a physiologue" (Baudelaire 35). They went by titles such as "Paris la nu it, Paris à table, Paris dans l'eau, Paris à cheval, Paris pittoresque, Paris marié" (Baudelaire 36). Benjamin notes that in "1841, there were seventy-six new physiologies. After that year the genre declined, and it disappeared altogether with the reign of the citizen-king Louis-Philippe" (Baudelaire 35-36). Benjamin dismisses these writings as "a basically petty-bourgeois genre" (Baudelaire 36) that was somewhat "socially dubious": "The long series of eccentric or simple, attractive or severe figures which the physiologies presented to the public in character sketches had one thing in common: they were harmless and of perfect bonhomie" (Baudelaire 37).
These booklets attempted to articulate the textual representation of flânerie, while at the same time giving people "a friendly picture of one another" (Baudelaire 38). The governing principle behind these works was the idea that a person could be sized-up in a glance: "If that sort of thing could be done, then, to be sure, life in the big city was not nearly so disquieting as it probably seemed to people" (Baudelaire 39). However, their superficiality and safe adherence to the black-and-white prevented them from fitting the role of the flâneur as Benjamin defines it.
According to Benjamin, the flâneur came to rise primarily because of an architectural change in the city of Paris. This change, which was rooted in budding capitalism, involved the creation of the arcades, which were passageways through neighborhoods which had been covered with a glass roof and braced by marble panels so as to create a sort of interior-exterior for vending purposes. These passages were "lined with the most elegant shops, so that such an arcade is a city, even a world in miniature" (Baudelaire 36-37). Within these arcades, the flâneur is capable of finding a remedy for the ever-threatening ennui. He is able to stroll at leisure; one might even go to the extreme of allowing a pet turtle to set his pace, observing the people, the building facades, the objects for sale--entertaining and enriching his mind with the secret language of the city (Baudelaire 36-37). The flâneur is completely at home in this cross between interior and exterior worlds because his own personal interior-exterior boundaries are also ambiguous:
To him the shiny, enameled signs of businesses are at least as good a wallornament as an oil painting is to a bourgeoisin his salon. The walls are the desk againstwhich he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces ofcafés are the balconies from which he looksdown on his household after his work isdone. (Baudelaire 37)
According to Benjamin, the flâneur disappeared as the commercial world slowly deserted the interior-exteriors of arcades for the carpeted, artificially lit department stores that were to replace them: "If in the beginning the street had become an intérieur for him, now this intérieur turned into a street, and he roamed though the labyrinth of merchandise as he had once roamed though the labyrinth of the city" (Baudelaire 54).
The physical placement of the traditional flâneur in a setting that is an interior-exterior or an exterior-interior is essential to its significance in literary analysis. The flâneur's dual interior-exterior nature, his ability to be both active and intellectual, to be reading the past of the city while existing entirely in the present, and his manner of coloring the landscape with a bit of his own psyche places the flâneur at the center point of a whirlwind of contradictions. The manner in which the flâneur resolves the opposing stimuli that pelt him from every which way, while maintaining an aloof, yet empathic perspective of his surroundings--always alone in the crowd--makes him a powerful literary device that is capable of outdoing the omniscient narrator in objectivity and the first-person narrator in intimacy. The flâneur is like a ghost who is physically manifest in the material world, but not opaquely. His translucent personality, like a phantom, haunts his own narrative, leaving a tinge of himself, of his latent, repressed personality, on every detail of his interior-exterior universe, as though he were leaping into and out of his surroundings.
The flâneur may be a ghost in more ways than one: for Benjamin he may be a cold, dead thing from an epoch of old. However, the death of Benjamin's flâneur in the sterile capitalist wastelands of department stores does not necessarily mean the death of the flâneur for everyone else. Because Benjamin's flâneur is weighted with such political and socioeconomic importance, being as he is an icon of bourgeois "conspicuous leisure," the critic does not apply the concept to later literary figures who may have merited the same title, nor does he examine in much detail its manifestation in American literature outside of Edgar A. Poe.
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